The Dynamics of Mutual Aid
Simply stated, mutual aid refers to people helping one another. Setting mutual aid in motion in a group is not an easy task, however. It requires a large skill set, as identified below. Mutual aid is acknowledged as the hallmark of social work with groups and is unique to social work. To facilitate a group in which mutual aid is desirable is to attend to both personal and interpersonal needs, to think about the group as a system as well as each individual, to focus on people’s strengths instead of limitations, and to encourage people to use those strengths to help others as well as themselves.
Dynamic #1 Sharing Information: People help one another by exchanging information, knowledge, wisdom, and experience. Regardless of what brings people to service, they always have something to share that can help someone else.
Dynamic #2 Debating: People help one another by providing different points of view based on different histories, experiences, attitudes, and feelings. As long as the climate promotes understanding rather than conversion or attack, a good debate goes a long way in helping people to review the familiar and to make meaning of their differences.
Dynamic #3 Discussing Taboos: People need a forum to speak freely about the normally unspeakable, such as issues of authority, money, death, dependence, sex, mental illness, prejudice, etc. Without that freedom, a group is simply just another “polite” tea-time group. Helping groups to talk about normally-taboo topics, therefore, is fundamental to social group work practice.
Dynamic #4 All in the Same Boat/Universality: It is comforting to be with others who share the same histories, experiences, situations, values, ideas – people who “get” us and with whom we can identify. While some might wonder how people with common problems can help one another, practitioners who know the power of mutual aid know that the very first group dynamic necessary to help a group “gel” is a sense among members that they are in the company of others with whom there is common ground.
Dynamic #5 Mutual Support: Support includes empathy as well as sympathy. With empathy, experiences may differ but we still “feel” for the other. Empathy is sometimes difficult to cultivate but extremely necessary in a group, especially during conflict. It comes about by tuning into the other so keenly that even if another’s situation is vastly different, how s/he feels can be imagined.
Dynamic #6 Mutual Demand: Shared group responsibility for quality and quantity of group effort creates a sense of collective ownership and increases commitment. Thus, in social group work it is not just the worker’s responsibility to make sure the group carries out its work. Members have the right to ask that the group take itself, its goals, and its processes seriously.
Dynamic #7 Individual Problem Solving: Members use their experiences (self-reflection) to develop insight and empathy and share their own stories, successful or not (self-reference) to help one another problem solve.
Dynamic #8 Rehearsal: Groups provide a safe sounding board to try out new ways of being, doing, and thinking. Roles that one does not normally adopt in everyday life, for example, may be “tried on for size” in the group (such as being more assertive, less aggressive, more charitable in spirit, listening less judgmentally to a child, etc.).
Dynamic #9 Strength in Numbers: There is strength in not feeling/being alone. Sometimes, this dynamic is played out by the group on behalf of itself (like advocating for better meeting space) or by the group on behalf of one of its members (like checking in with a member who is in particular trouble).
from Shulman, L. 2011 The Skills of Helping…
& Steinberg, D. M. 2014 A Mutual-Aid Model for Working with Groups